by Fonda Lee
Of all the YA science fiction I’ve read so far (and keep in mind it hasn’t been a lot) Fonda Lee’s Exo is the only one I’d call true SF. That is, an out-there premise is given and the author extrapolates from it, showing us the effects it has on science, the environment, human society, and human relationships, all of which are worked seamlessly into the story so the panty lines of extrapolation do not show. It’s a tough order, and some YA authors choose not to do it, using robots, starships, and aliens as the Star Wars universe uses them… as elements of fantasy. Instead of doing this Lee demonstrates her worldbuilding logic continuously in the story, and in fact it helps shape the story.
The setting is about 100 years into the future, after Earth has been conquered by an alien race called the zhree. The zhree resemble stubby mushrooms walking on six tentacles, like a shorter, friendlier version of H. P. Lovecraft’s Elder Things. Their occupation of Earth came about because they needed an outpost against the Rii, a rival race. Naturally, humankind fought back, but lost because of the zhree’s superior weaponry. However, the zhree are more kindly colonizers than despots, and certain humans they choose adopt into their “tribe” as liaisons, diplomats, and peacekeepers for zhree rule. The chosen humans receive the alien exoskeleton that the zhree invented for their own soldiers which makes them faster, stronger, and more able to absorb damage. The exoskeletons are not rigid, but something like a thin, transparent web that flows over the wearer’s skin. The story gets going when one of the peacekeepers, a young man named Donovan, goes to arrest a group of human anti-alien terrorists and instead gets captured by them.
It’s Old School SF, and sufficiently complex not to bore me… in fact, it’s on the level of many older SF written for adults, like Rendezvous with Rama, for example. It’s something of a thriller as well, incorporating escapes, explosions, and battles, and a political potboiler, as the true nature of the relationship between the zhree and humankind is revealed, and how the terrorists’ goal of driving the zhree away means not liberation but danger for the entire planet.
Lee does an exemplary job of balancing out the opposing sides of human alien-collaborators and human alien-opposers, giving each member valid and logical motivations for doing what they do. Each side demonizes the other, but to the reader, there are no clear Good Guys and Bad Guys. To the story’s credit, Donovan does not switch allegiances after he is captured – that would be too facile. But his lines do blur a little, and he begins to see beyond his blinders, and after he discovers a shocking family secret, his allegiances get called into question.
The story kept me guessing about this even as I was sure he’d never betray his friends and father. Yet, he does eventually rebel, and the consequences are heartbreaking. I don’t want to reveal too much of it. It’s the rare book I want readers to discover on their own without me spoiling things. It would make a wonderful anime series, or a live-action one spread over several episodes, and this is the course I hope it takes.
There were neat touches everywhere in the book, like a festival performance — described by Donovan as “silly” — with a chorus of zhree younglings and human children singing together holding hands, and a flashback to Donovan’s implantation of his exoskeleton at age six. If I had a criticism, it would be that the chapters in the first part of the book, those dealing with Donovan’s internment, are too often ended with scene-wiping cliffhangers or explosions, and his attraction to a human girl who is one of the terrorists seems a little shoved in, though it’s the sort of thoughts a young, somewhat sheltered guy might have. Adolescence is for dreaming, after all. But again to the story’s credit, Donovan doesn’t run off with her or have a mad affair with her (as might happen in another author’s hands) and though she moves out of the action for the second half of the book, she certainly influences his thoughts and actions.
In short, recommended. There’s a sequel out too, and I will definitely be reading that.